How is COVID-19 affecting retail, restaurants? Electrical, power and lighting are discussed

With consumers frequently enjoying delivered meals and shopping for goods online, brick-and-mortar restaurants and retail structures need to be more advanced in their power, electrical and lighting systems to compete

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 19, 2020


  • Scott Garrison, principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich. An electrical engineer for more than 30 years, Garrison heads up his company’s Commercial and Government Buildings market sector group. He has worked on a range of projects including large corporate headquarters, data centers, casinos, sports and entertainment venues, municipal and educational facilities.
  • Jessica Iversen, PE, Seattle office leader | project engineer, RTM Engineering Consultants, Seattle. As RTM’s Seattle office leader, Iversen Jessica manages a team of engineers and designers working in a variety of market sectors across the country. Her portfolio encompasses design in retail spaces, educational facilities, multifamily residential, restaurants, and and a range of tenant build-outs projects.
  • Bradley D. Williams, PE, vice president, Bala Consulting Engineers, New York City. In his role of vice president of MEP, Williams manages the overall New York office operations and oversees a broad range of projects, encompassing the infrastructure, hospitality, data center and, and corporate markets. His more than 27 years of experience includes projects for high-profile clients like Deloitte, JPMC and Rockefeller Center.
  • Jason Wollum, PE, LEED AP BD+C, retail practice director | senior vice president, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City. Having joined the company in 1997, Wollum is now a senior vice president responsible for the design, management and, and coordination of several programs. He also mentors young engineers at the company.

CSE: Are there any issues unique to designing electrical/power systems for these types of facilities?

Wollum: Accurately estimating power needs on project is always challenging. Early communication with all parties is the key, including coordination with a dry utilities consultant and/or the utility company to fully understand requirements and timelines for utility upgrades will help a project go smoothly.

Iversen: Restaurants especially have very high power density needs. This can be challenging when restaurants are located in existing mixed-use buildings, malls, or shopping centers where the existing electrical service and landlord metering may not meet the needs of the restaurant. Sometimes these services can be upgraded, but at other locations, we have had to work closely with the restaurant designer to select alternate kitchen equipment or to evaluate cooking fuel sources, to help ensure the restaurant is not exceeding the available electrical capacity. For retail, voltage drop can be more pronounced in large facilities, like some of the big-box stores. Electrical panels are usually relegated to back-of-house locations, so designers need to be conscious of the long conduit runs and need to make sure they are accounting for voltage drop when sizing the wiring.

CSE: What types of unusual standby, emergency or backup power systems have you specified for retail, restaurant and mixed-use facilities?

Iversen: Emergency inverter systems for lighting have become more commonplace as a way for restaurants to utilize their decorative and specialty lighting for emergency illumination, without having to also install separate fixtures for this application. In this case, it’s critical to make sure the controls are properly specified and listed to bring the lighting up to 100% brightness in the event of power loss, and light output of these fixtures should be evaluated to ensure minimum life-safety light levels are being met.

Wollum: We have worked with several retailers that utilize a manual transfer switch and a switchboard section at the main switchboard (or a remote exterior section) for connection to a truck mounted generator that can be brought on site and used in long-term power outages (after severe weather like a hurricane or tornado, for example).

CSE: What are some key differences in electrical, lighting and power systems you might incorporate in this kind of facility, compared to other projects?

Wollum: Lighting control systems and building management control systems that are controllable from a retail/restaurant owner’s home office are commonplace in today’s buildings.

Iversen: Restaurant spaces typically have a need for very high levels of lighting controls. The number of zones, scheduled dimming, and controllability far exceeds what you would find in many other types of buildings. The power density found in a restaurant is also much higher than a typical building, so it’s important to plan appropriately for this when in the early design stages.

CSE: How does your team work with the architect, owner’s rep and other project team members so the electrical/power systems are flexible and sustainable?

Wollum: We actively discuss the need for centralized power distribution to allow for tenant flexibility. We also work with the team to plan for a variety of uses within the space. An esports or restaurant tenant will have much different power requirements than a casual shoe retailer for example. Discussing diversity of not just the current tenants, but possible future tenants helps us to design for the future.

Iversen: It’s important to have a meeting with the design team and owner’s rep early in design to get on the same page regarding the owner’s needs. Most retail clients anticipate very regular reconfigurations, as seasonal displays come and go, and certain departments evolve.

CSE: When designing lighting systems for these types of structures, what design factors are being requested? Are there any particular technical advantages that are or need to be considered?

Garrison: Lighting that is highly integrated with the architecture and interior design has become the expectation. LED technology has become available in a wide array of form factors and has created incredible opportunities for architects and designers. Our lighting designers and engineers spend much more time coordinating technical details with the architecture and seeking out application specific products than we have in the past. The technology has allowed design teams to create spaces that are much more interesting and dynamic.

Wollum: We are seeing specialized control systems and daylight dimming/harvesting more and more. With LED lighting being mainstream and typically dimmable as a standard feature, owners are looking to have more customizable control of their spaces.

Iversen: Extremely high levels of flexibility and controllability are required in most restaurants when it comes to lighting controls, including automated dimming based on scheduling throughout each day. This typically requires a robust lighting control panel. We’ve also had some owners request very straightforward systems, while others request controls that can be operated from smartphones or tablets, so it’s important to communicate with owners regarding the level of functionality they are expecting from their lighting controls.

CSE: Retail facilities have unique lighting design requirements. Describe a recent project, and the owner’s needs for lighting design.

Wollum: With retail projects incorporating more audio-video technology, it is becoming increasingly important to design lighting systems that not only highlight the brand and product, but also do not distract, conflict, or glare onto the incorporated technology. On some projects, the audio-video systems are driven by a vendor that is not part of the design team. Asking questions about how technology will be used in the space early on will help the lighting designer to understand how to layout the lighting system in harmony with the technology.

CSE: What types of holistic lighting systems have been requested, and how do you meet the client’s needs?

Williams: A recent trend in lighting system design is for power over Ethernet (POE) lighting systems. We typically begin with a cost/benefit review for the client’s specific application. These lighting systems are suitable in certain cases but come with geographic/code related limitations. POE lighting can reduce the electrical costs to the lighting fixture by consolidating installation trades. However, it can also be limited by other factors such as POE fixture availability, wattage limitations, smart building interface availability, POE driver/switch locations/consolidation, electrical codes, and requirements for emergency lighting that all weigh into the overall decision analysis.

Wollum: Holistic lighting systems have been incorporated into retail for years. Thinking of the lighting system in layers with different parts being illuminated in a way that creates an overall lighting system naturally creates highlighted areas and areas of visual interest. These are many of the same things that retail and restaurant owners are looking to create with their lighting systems. Today’s LED light sources and modern control systems make designing a holistic system simpler than in years past. Being able to create spaces such as daylight zones as part of a holistic system is more commonplace.